United Kingdom

United Kingdom


Designing supportive, inclusive education spaces

Guest blog by Lesley McMillan SBID Interior Designer and Chair of the Education Design Council for the Society of British and International Design.




I’d like to outline the role of an interior designer in education buildings, important considerations in designing learning spaces that support pedagogy, health, wellbeing and sustainability and design considerations that I think will become increasingly important in ‘post covid’ learning settings.

Studying interior architecture, over the years I have been involved in the design of a variety of spaces, including education, offices, community spaces and residential. As an interior designer I am involved in lots of different scales of projects. In large or new-build projects we work as part of a design team, informing the interior architectural layout, with involvement in the design and specification of the fixed and loose fixtures, fittings and furniture. In a refurbishment, depending on the scale, we will work as part of a design team in the above capacity, and sometimes additionally undertake statutory consents, such as listed building consent, planning applications and building warrants. We can act as the principal designer, co-ordinating the construction design management considerations of the design team, and sometimes act as the contract administrator for the works on site.

Interior design is not just about designing ‘pretty spaces’, although aesthetic is a large part of an interior designer’s role; it’s much more complex. We are the only discipline within design that interacts with almost all other areas in the design industry, such as project managers, architects, mechanical and electrical engineers, digital experts, landscape architects, structural engineers, furniture designers, textiles and products designers, through to graphic designers.

In the context of an education building, it is about designing a space that supports pedagogy – that’s the method and practice of teaching - as well as promoting health, wellbeing and sustainability. The design of the best educational spaces is a result of design collaboration between all of the stakeholders for optimum experiential and physical design - experiential being the education, and physical the space. In this capacity, interior design could be seen as acting as a ‘bridge’ between the experiential and the physical. The design of indoor spaces also needs to be considered alongside the outdoor and the digital learning spaces, and in a way the indoor space acts as a ‘bridge’ between the outdoor and digital environment too.

In my career as well as working in private practice I have been employed in-house in both in local authority and higher education estates departments. With these roles as well as working as a designer, I also work in a client capacity. I do feel extremely fortunate that this has allowed me to work closely with education experts, teachers, professors, students and pupils. We manage furniture and consultant frameworks, and input to briefing and authority condition requirement specification. Working within an education estate allows constant feedback and review of what’s working and not working in a space. Newly created/adapted learning spaces also act as a collective of pilot spaces over the estate that both assist in informing design and specification of new learning spaces, and help with the transition for learners and educators into a new learning environment.

I am becoming increasingly interested in, and enjoy, this co-design aspect of designing learning spaces. I think that the earlier in the process all of the design disciplines collaborate with the stakeholders the better, and preferably at strategic briefing stage to ensure the infrastructure for physical and digital capability is built in with flexibility to adapt in the future.

Last year I was on a secondment at Architecture and Design Scotland, working on an education environment project that resulted in the design of a toolkit that can assist in the assessment, co-design and use of agile learning spaces. On returning to the office during early ‘lockdown’ I worked with a local authority asset department, assisting with re-opening of buildings, and measures to support safe delivery and physical distancing. This has resulted in me returning to visit many spaces that I have designed, and I am finding that agile spaces are obviously the most adaptable.

Early years

One of the projects that I began my journey as a designer in local authority with, was new build nurseries. This was to accommodate the 1140 hours expansion in Scotland and involved the development of an ‘Early Years Environment Vision’ with early years and learning estate colleagues to inform new build and refurbishment briefs. With key considerations of welcoming, nurturing, inclusive and agile spaces, I also wanted to ensure from the outset that our design specifications were sustainable, maintainable and flexible, with scope for development.

Primary project

Primary schools are also transitioning into much more agile learning spaces and I am finding that many of the principles I have applied in early years settings are still applicable, such as:

  • 100% vinyl flooring and rugs (no restrictions for messy play and learning)
  • Display and mark-making opportunities throughout
  • Calm and natural palettes of materials, based on the biophilic design principles in early years. (Biophilic means bringing natural materials, rhythms and patterns into the interior design which promote wellbeing)
  • Reducing the sensory overload, which also particularly benefits autistic pupils.
  • I like to develop the wayfinding (signage and room names) with pupils and inspire to take inspiration from things like local nature and landmarks to develop a narrative

Consulting with the pupils means that you generally still retain an element of playfulness and colour. Recent examples of engagement with pupils has resulted in ‘Tobermory’ inspired ‘coat houses’, sparkly gold paint in break out areas, and a ‘James and the giant peach’ learning Orchard. Continually trialling agile furniture, can act as a pilot space informing future projects and new builds over an estate.

Schools and Community Buildings

These are some further agile primary and high school spaces that I’ve worked on.

In them you will see a variety of furniture that is inclusive, some particularly suit learners with additional support needs such as wobble stools, rocking chairs which can be extremely therapeutic and high back sofas which we find are often used as a ’safe space’ or collaboration area. It’s not just the pupils wellbeing that we need to consider, teachers requirements and comfort as important too – whether its considerations such as lower seats that support their backs when they are teaching the little ones, or standing desks which I am seeing lately becoming more and popular in schools for both pupils and teachers.

The quote here is particularly relevant According to Benedict (2014), studies on how the brain works, and recalls information, showed that the more the environment changes while learning the same information, the more we are able to recall the information better.

Learning is relaxing

The key message that I get from pupils is that they want comfort and choice in their learning spaces. I think that working from home now many of us who have had to ‘make do’ with dining room tables and chairs will have a new empathy for learners and school furniture. A recent article that I seen predicted a new ‘lab-like’ aesthetic would emerge in post-Covid design, with ‘scientific’ communicating safety. And a desire to develop more hygienic spaces. My opinion is that hygienic spaces can still be nurturing. Many of my design projects include textured and tactile upholstery with microbial properties. Vinyl flooring that is easily cleanable, can still have patterns from nature and, just as using soap and water to clean your hands is the best way to stop the spread of the virus, it can be used on natural woollen upholstery and timber in the same way.

And in terms of what’s next, I am looking forward to finalising some interior fit outs soon, and collaborating with the Shared Learning Design Team at Moray House School of Education and Sport, University of Edinburgh on a body of research on learning spaces and participatory design.


Lesley McMillan is an Interior Designer and Chair of the Education Design Council for the Society of British and International Design. She also acts as an ambassador for HundrED a not-for-profit organisation, which seeks and shares inspiring innovations in education.